operations research for six year olds?

I have been meaning to sign my six year-old daughter up for an optional science project at her elementary school, but they need a science project topic up front. Having been a judge for the Illinois Junior Academy of Science state science fair competition, I am familiar with what is needed at the junior high and high school levels.  Picking a topic that would interest a six year old is a new challenge for me.  And personally, I want to do something more exciting than testing dice probabilities or creating histograms of the number of colors in bags of M&Ms.  I am looking to my wonderful readers for inspiration.  Please leave a comment or email me with your ideas. Thank you!


12 responses to “operations research for six year olds?

  • Michael Trick

    Optimal planning of a trip to Disneyland? The addition of the times between rides would be a good challenge for a six year old (my own would need some help on that front). Simplify it a bit with just 6 or so rides to plan between. No downloading Concorde permitted!

  • Laura

    Mike, I should have known that you would come up with a great idea in 60 seconds or less. We can probably adapt the problem to her favorite rides at Busch Gardens. Thank you!

  • Michael Trick

    Bob Bosch wrote a paper about this: “Maximizing Fun at an Amusement Park” (with M. Cardiff and G. Hughes), The UMAP Journal 21(4), 483-498, (2000).

  • Barry Render

    My son suggests mixing different liquids together…oil and water, coke and lemonade,with the idea being to show different densities relate.

  • Tallys

    Another possibility would be to simulate a simple queueing system with two servers and compare a performance measure (e.g. avg. time in system) of a single queue versus two queues. You can draw the service and interarrival times in advance, write them on pieces of paper, and put them in two separate buckets for her to draw from. You could use Lego pieces to represent people in line. Note: not being a parent, I may be misjudging the suitability of such a project for a six-year-old.

  • Anonymous

    What about knapsack problems… I have been thinking about that topic for younger students. I think it has potential for curriculum that I am thinking about writing….What do you think?

  • Anonymous

    Could they do something with twisting Oreos apart? How often is the cream on only one side as compared to how often is it evenly distributed between the two cookies? I think this would require some practice to develop sufficient skill wit…h the twisting. That might be popular!

    Or, maybe they could do some analysis of what students throw away at lunch. They could sit by the trash cans and record what is on students’ trays or in their lunch bags when they throw them away. How much food is being thrown away? What types of food are thrown away? Maybe this could even lead to some composting or vermiculture projects at the school?

  • Paul Rubin

    I’m a bit out of touch — the last time I was six years old, baking soda volcanoes were all the rage. (The time before that, I think Shirley Maclaine was my first grade “girlfriend”.) If Mom’s allowed to help (and wants to do some programming), a computerized map coloring example (try to color a map with four colors) comes to mind. I’d also second the knapsack suggestion someone else made. (If you want to make the knapsack problem both more “scientific” and more “realistic”, couch it as picking a set of science experiments to send up on a shuttle mission.) You could also build a little game (maybe with blocks or Legos?) (or M&Ms, if you’re only going to do it once) where a child has to divide an integral number of items into groups of the same size (i.e., factorization). You could even introduce primes in that last one (groups that can’t be subdivided further, other than into singletons).

  • Laura

    Thank you for all of the wonderful suggestions! I am leaning toward knapsack problem, but I know my daughter would prefer the amusement park TSP project, so we will start with the amusement park and switch to knapsacks if it gets too hard too quickly. Both deal with addition, which is consistent with the first grade curriculum. I just need to formulate a hypothesis to test and we are set!

  • Andrew Ross

    * Write down what time the school bus arrives at your stop each morning–make a histogram with stickers in columns, find the median and mode (the mean is probably too advanced for a 6-year-old?). Does it tend to come before or after the quoted time? How often does it come outside a +-5 minute window around the quoted time?

    * Also keep track of what time the bus gets to school, or to other stops in between your stop and school.

    * If there’s no school bus: keep track of what time you leave the house, and what time you get to school.

    * Keep track of how many cars are in the drive-through line at whatever drive-through you tend to stop at (also the time of day you arrived, and how long it took to go through the line).

    * Are incidents requiring visits to the pediatrician a Poisson process at the individual family level? (hopefully you don’t get much data on this in the next few months!)

    * At a local school, parents in cars/vans arrive and line up to pick up their kids. You can’t leave the line until everyone in front of you leaves. You could get there very early so you can leave among the first few cars (at the cost of sitting there for a long time before the kids get out), or you could get there much later and sit in the car waiting for the line to dissipate. What is the optimal time to get there? Note that your child can’t take data directly, since they’re still in the classroom while the lineup is forming. So, videotape it them and analyze it at home later.

    * How quickly can you get dressed/eat breakfast/brush your teeth/etc (more IE than OR, of course)–is 6 years old too young to have Cheaper by the Dozen read aloud to them?

    * You can sell candy to your classmates at 10 cents apiece on the sly. Your O.R. professor parent will supply you with candy at 2 cents apiece. Any candy you have left over at the end of the day has a ??% chance of being discovered and confiscated. What is the optimal amount of candy to bring to school?

    @Anonymous(#7 post): there was a Math Contest in Modeling problem about optimal composting–I don’t remember what the results were, though.

    Speaking of O.R. and science fairs: some professional societies (e.g. amstat.org) sponsor prizes at local fairs. Could we deputize any INFORMS member who judges at a local fair to award a certificate of merit and a free student membership (plus free membership for the student’s teacher) to any (or the best) project related to what INFORMS does? It could raise visibility for very little direct cost.

  • bork

    This is your daughter’s project. Why isn’t she picking the topic? I know that collaborative ‘team science’ is all the rage in research circles, but I’m not sure that extends to a grade-school science fair project.

    I remember my frustration in middle school when kids with professor parents (I lived in a college town) would arrive on science fair day with projects they clearly had little hand in designing or carrying out…

  • Laura

    Good point, bork! It’s hard to not want to do the project (I am definitely guilty of that, but I won’t do it), but at six, my daughter doesn’t really know what her options are. And neither did I, since I have been a judge for science fair competitions at the junior high and high school level where the topics and expectations are different. First grade is a new challenge for me, too. Giving her a few options is just what she needs.

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